Editorial: Second thoughts on biofuels
For decades, the promise of ethanol hovered over America's energy debates, powered by the agribusiness lobby and Iowa's clout in the presidential nominating process. With the right subsidies and the right market conditions, its backers insisted, we can grow our way to energy independence.
There were always weaknesses in the ethanol arguments. Without government subsidies, ethanol costs more to make than it saves. It's no bargain when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, either. But with oil prices in record territory, ethanol is getting its chance to live up to its promise. What it is delivering is unintended consequences of disastrous proportions.
The diversion of a quarter of the nation's corn harvest to ethanol production has helped spark a global food crisis. Corn prices are up 74 percent in one year. Farmers are converting fields from other crops to corn, which has helped push wheat up 86 percent and soybeans up 93 percent.
As a result, Americans are seeing huge price increases at the supermarket and things are far worse around the world. Grain exporting countries are starting to hoard crops for domestic use. Strained supplies have sparked riots in Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Drought and high oil prices are also culprits in global food inflation, but there's no doubt that biofuels production is having a profound impact. The amount of corn it takes to produce 11 gallons of ethanol, a United Nations analysis notes, could feed a child for an entire year.
Without changes in policy, the crisis will likely get worse. Some in Congress, which created the $8 billion ethanol subsidy, are having second thoughts. "If there was a secret vote, there is a pretty large number of people who would like to reassess what we are doing," Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, told the New York Times.
State officials should be thinking carefully as well. Legislation proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature's Democratic leadership last fall would require 2 percent of all diesel and home heating fuel sold in Massachusetts by 2010 to come from renewable bio-based sources. That mandate should be geared toward creating a market for non-food-based biofuels so that it doesn't push corn prices even higher.
Biofuels still hold promise, but only if they can be created from grasses or other non-food crops, and only if they can be produced without diverting cropland from food. Before we go further down the biofuels road, we must sort through the unintended consequences ahead.